What is it? A Quake/Dusk-inspired retro shooter set in '80s communist Czechoslovakia.
Release date May 16, 2023
Expect to pay $20 /£15
Reviewed on Core i5 12600K, RTX 3070, 32 GB RAM
Steam Deck Unverified
The star of the show in Sovietcore boomer shooter Hrot is solo developer Spytihněv's levels, all of which are inspired by or directly correspond to real-life locations in and around Prague. The tenement blocks, metro stations, churches, and castles of this twisted version of the city all feel like cheeky de-makes of real world locations, a MyHouse.wad blown up to massive proportions.
The levels twist and fold in on each other in surprising ways, and Spytihněv likes to troll. It almost feels like he's a dungeon master in active conversation with you—or chuckling at your blunders—rather than a level designer who created these areas and stepped back.
There's almost always some kind of trick to activating switches or picking up keys, with walls falling away to reveal enemies, trap doors dropping you into sticky situations, or even the game outright teleporting you to a completely different part of the map—Hrot is absolutely stuffed with little gags like these that never failed to get a chuckle out of me, and even when I got punked, I always appreciated it.
One memorable bit is the game's riff on the classic Indiana Jones boulder trap. Early in Episode 2, you encounter a standard, if surprising one in the lead up to the end of a level. One mission later, and look, there's another one, only this time the boulder doesn't roll in a straight line: it chases you, a surprise yakety sax slapstick sequence in the middle of a foreboding uranium mine deep underground.
One of my favorite levels, Granny's Valley, takes you to a farm out in the country with an unnerving statue of an elderly peasant woman at the center (one that corresponds to a real life monument inspired by a Czech novel), and the farm makes for an interesting puzzle box of a level, scouring it for keys until its secrets finally reveal themselves to you.
The thing is, the Granny statue stalks you through her farm and even ambushes you at points, making for some of my favorite moments in Hrot. Granny herself isn't all that scary to look at, but the sheer surprise of finding her where she didn't belong spooked me enough my first time through that I had to step away from the computer during a late night session and pick back up the next day.
Hrot's moment-to-moment shooting is a blast, with a great variety of hard-hitting enemies demanding improvisation and mastery of its arsenal, but I did find that arsenal to be rather limited. It's all FPS staples: pistol (much more fun when dual-wielded), single and double-barreled shotguns, SMG, sniper-style crossbow, and a "hussite hand cannon" (read: rocket launcher). They all look, feel, and sound great, and they're well-balanced against each other.
I always appreciate when a super shotty doesn't outmode the regular one, and Hrot's ammo economy means you'll want to save shells when both barrels would be overkill. The only place where Hrot's arsenal tries to be unique, however, is a bit of a letdown. There are two wacky Soviet space super weapons that I wish were utilized better—I found them to be underpowered while their ammo was exceedingly rare. Spytihněv left a lot on the table when it comes to retro-futuristic beam weapons, especially considering how zany Hrot gets by the end.
Episode 1: Kiss Me Gustav is the most grim and oppressive, focusing on sparse, modern, Soviet-era locales. The middle chapter, The Degustation, remains my favorite, moving out into the country while mixing in more pagan, earthy settings like gothic castles or a haunted farm. There's a three level stretch at the end, Kašperk Castle, Dobrosov Fortress, and The Granny's Valley, that's just an all-timer run of FPS maps for me. It sees you go from a 14th century castle where you climb the battlements before descending into its flooded cellars, to a cramped Soviet bunker, to that unnerving rural key hunt I described earlier. This sequence is Hrot at its best, and really underscores the variety Spytihněv was able to wring out of this grim, brown world.
Episode 3, the Gastroscopy, really goes ham on Hrot's sense of absurd, surreal weirdness—it gets goofy—and for the most part, it landed for me. The opening level, War with the Newts, is a new favorite, an homage to the satirical 1930s Czech novel of the same name, and also, weirdly, a great send-up of Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Other highlights include a bumper car boss and adorable rat-killing canine companions who immediately shot to the top of my list of favorite videogame dogs.
That goofiness worked for me right up until Hrot's final boss. Spoilers ahead, but it's ah, epic shirtless Vladimir Putin? For me, this non-sequitur landed like a wet fart, and not in a good way like Hrot's more scatological humor (this is a game where you can take a dump and flush it). The first two episode bosses are freaky zombified/robofied versions of historical leaders of communist Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald in Episode 1 and Gustáv Husák in The Degustation. Those felt like sharp, winking riffs on the absurdity of Wolfenstein 3D's Mecha Hitler, the perfect capstones to their respective acts, while low-poly Putin feels like an incongruous meme, instantly dating Hrot more than a 20th century socialist politician ever could.
It's not a perfect comparison, but I keep coming back to an alternate universe Spec Ops: The Line where you fight George Bush at the end. Epic Putin just defanged and deflated Hrot for me, like the end of Lost or something: "all that build up and mystery was for this?"
Some manner of zombie Vladimir Lenin boss fight was right there for the taking—there's a ton of era-appropriate Lenin imagery throughout all three episodes that would have made for effective foreshadowing, and Mecha Lenin would have felt like a far more earned, absurd, real life political figure final boss. I would have also settled for a zombie Brezhnev, but reanimated Stalin would have been gauche. Ending gripes aside though, I love Hrot, and it had me hooked right up until that vexing final fight. Hrot is a truly excellent FPS, one of the best of the boomer shooter renaissance.